Stealing patterns from Matisse

Matisse uses patterns from textiles in is paintings. We’ll explore how we can source patterns and textures for UX design.

The inspiration

I used to sew a lot, and I still have an extensive collection of fabric. Imagine my excitement when I found out that I could validate my desire to collect fabrics - Matisse did the same thing! He collected tapestries, shawls, costumes, rugs and other textiles and used them as source material for his paintings.

A unique piece of textile Matisse used repeatedly in his work

A unique piece of textile Matisse used repeatedly in his work

Matisse grew up in Bohain, France - a town famous for its professional weavers. Since childhood, he was immersed in the art and craft of weaving and textile pattern design. As his career developed, this gave him a deep interest in textiles, and an understanding of the complex patterns and designs they hold.

Paintings featuring the blue and white textile

Paintings featuring the blue and white textile

Even when he travelled (and he did a lot, including wartime), Matisse brought with him a smaller travel-appropriate library of materials. He used them as theatrical set pieces, and created scenes to paint.

I was inspired by the thought process of collecting materials and then translating or transforming them into a piece of my own work. Even if an artist makes a close copy of a textile pattern in a different medium, the act of re-making gives the pattern its own qualities. Moved from a textile into a painting, it gains new meaning.

I decided to follow my inspiration and copy a few patterns for myself. I started with a close imitation of a painting, and then moved into making my own original one, based on observation.

This is a useful technique to tackle a potentially challenging project. Break the project into stages: most likely, stage one will be to practice with the tools, then to sketch the idea for the artwork, and only then to make the final piece. Here, I practiced with the tools by closely copying something, and then moved on to a more unique piece.

The process

1. Steal a pattern by shamelessly copying it (but in a new medium)

I started by copying a wallpaper pattern Matisse painted. Instead of oil paint used in the original, I used color markers.

I wanted to play with the colors, so I re-drew the pattern using a burgundy chisel tip marker. It felt natural to use the marker in parallel strips. This look is similar to the parallel threads in it fabric: they are dyed and then woven, and the patterns have an extra vibrancy due to the jagged edges between the colors. It felt good t make a parallel again between Matisse’s interest in textiles and my derived pattern.

2. Make another pattern by looking at different reference material

Next, I picked up some new reference material. I worked on this project at UX Camp, so I had access to beautiful pieces of nature all around me.

My reference piece of moss, and the drawing

My reference piece of moss, and the drawing

I drew two pieces of moss in the same technique, with markers, and added smaller bits to use as part of the repeat pattern.

I also drew a pattern of scattered rocks, where shapes are similar but the slight variation in forma and color add interest.

3. Simplify, digitize, and use

I created a vector repeat pattern in Illustrator to evaluate how it might look. Depending on the color combination, this could become a neutral background, or a high contrast element in a layout.

Finished repeat pattern based on the moss drawing

Finished pattern of small rocks

Start somewhere

In this process, that started with “stealing” a pattern from a painting, I eventually made a completely original artwork. Once I’ve made my interpretation, the next step is to make a unique pattern, or modify it so it no longer reminds me of the source material. After that, I’ve practiced the method of translating visual inspiration into a pattern, and can apply it to source material all around me. It is important to start with a source: it gives us something to work with, something to change and build upon.

Take it somewhere

The process of copying something in order to transform it is useful for many projects, not just making patterns. I could design a web or magazine layout, “stealing” from a painting or a piece of architecture. Or, I could prototype a user flow of an application, “stealing” the path of a hero’s journey from a film, or the path an attendee takes through the physical space of an exhibition.

Nothing is new

Austin Kleon repeats in his best-selling Steal Like and Artist that nothing is truly original - everything comes from something. But when we “steal”, it is important to add something of our own: to transform the work and add meaning.

Maria Matveevafirst-9